Saturday, October 25, 2008

For Some States, Voting Counts Again

I remember the first time I voted for a presidential candidate. It was shortly after the constitutional amendment that lowered the voting age to 18 had taken effect and I wanted to exercise my new power over the government.

I was still in college and, back then at least, most college students were democrats, even at Franklin College. But Nixon, a Republican, was riding a wave of popularity and was about to end the draft and the war in Vietnam. So I was a Nixon supporter.

I even convinced my Aunt Ruby to vote Republican. She had never voted Republican in her life, but she did it for me.

Now, as we all know from history, or because we were there to witness it, Nixon turned out to be the only president ever to resign in disgrace. My first presidential vote turned out to be a big mistake. But my solace came in knowing that a large majority of Americans made the same mistake.

I voted for another winner in 1976, Jimmy Carter. He was a Democrat, so my aunt returned to voting for her own party. I don’t think she ever voted Republican again. But I did. I voted for George H. W. Bush in 1992 because I thought he was a brilliant man who had a hand in winning the Cold War. He was the only leader in the free world who forecast the failure of the political coup in Russia in 1990. He deserved a second term.

But, alas, the economy turned sour during the final months leading up to the election and the saxophone-playing Bill Clinton came away with a landslide and a mandate. Despite a tentative foreign policy and amid some minor scandals, he did manage to fix the economy and kept it strong right up through his second term.

I voted Republican again in 2000, opting for W. over Al Gore. I didn’t do my homework well enough; I just figured he would be just like his dad, whom I still admire. But I was wrong. Unlike the elder Bush, Junior turned out to be a born-again blithering idiot.

His election and reelection were both decided by a single state. It was Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004. So blame those people.

Indiana gave up its 11 electoral votes to Bush both times. In fact, it hasn’t voted for a Democrat for president in the last 44 years. Even in the 1992 Clinton landslide, Indiana remained an island of red in a sea of blue.

But there is some hope this year. All the political polls have shown Indiana has been leaning slightly toward McCain. But the most recent polls are showing Obama with a healthy lead. That could change, of course. But if it doesn’t, it will mean that Indiana is actually taking a look at the candidate rather than blindly voting Republican year after year.

My daughter and I have already voted. We went last week and cast our ballots. This was her second time voting for a president and she took it very seriously. She did all the research. We don’t always agree on the issues, but we agreed this vote would be a no-brainer. We went with Obama.

Teens who have recently turned 18 and who have never voted often get exited about the prospect of voting, but then turn timid on Election Day. But whomever you support, my advice is to make sure you find out where to vote and then turn out next Tuesday to help make a difference. Or you can go vote today in most states. States like Indiana and Virginia might actually count this time, but only if we all vote.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Store those Old Memories Digitally

Go look under your bed or behind the closet door, way in the back of the top shelf, or maybe in your attic. Pull out those dusty old boxes of Super8 movie film or those old Ektachrome color slides from Christmases long ago. Then, locate all your old photos hiding away in boxes or binders in the corner of the garage. Dust off the old video tapes of weddings and holidays that are still probably collecting dust on a shelf somewhere.

Everyone who was a child of the ‘40s through the ‘80s has memories stored in boxes somewhere. Dig them out and wax nostalgic about those good old days before it is too late.

All those old home movies, video tapes, and photographs are analog media. They are stored on paper, plastic tape, or celluloid. And what they all have in common is that, over time, they will deteriorate. Photos will become dull, change to yellow, and eventually fade away. Home movies will become brittle and faded. Video tape will break or the picture will start flickering and flagging to the point where it is unwatchable. And that’s even assuming you still have a VCR to watch them on.

The days of analog storage are numbered. Analog media is dying a slow, protracted death. But dying it is. So maybe you should consider preserving all those priceless memories before time has its final say.

The new method of storing media is digitally. Unlike paper that eventually yellows and rots away, unlike film and video tape that eventually lose their images, and unlike an audio tape cassette whose spools become frozen, digital storage is potentially forever. It never fades away, loses its luster, or deteriorates in any way. And it can be copied ad infinitum without any loss of quality.

But there is one thing you can do with pictures printed on paper or movies stored on film that you can’t do with digital media files. You can touch them, feel them, and hold them in your hand. You can pick up that old, faded snapshot of your great-grandfather and know that it was held with the hands of your great-grandmother, your grandmother, and your mother. So if tangibility is important to you, go ahead and hang on to those old photographs and movies, as long as you don’t mind storing them and as long as you realize they will eventually fade to nothing.

In the mean time, what can you do to preserve the memories in a form that won’t fade away? You can digitize them. There are plenty of companies out there that will take your old photos and turn them into a slide show stored on digital disk. You can then copy those files to your computer or cell phone.

I have stored nearly 600 music files and more than 3,000 family photos on my cell phone that I carry everywhere. My entire music collection, well at least all the songs I listen to frequently, I carry with me to listen to whenever and wherever I want. All my treasured memories stored in pictures are always in my pocket.

It still amazes me that all my old 35 millimeter photographs, which probably weigh 25 pounds when stacked in albums in my closet, plus the music from stacks of old vinyl record albums and CDs can all be placed on a digital memory card no larger than my thumbnail and plugged into my cell phone to be taken anywhere.

But I haven’t thrown away my old photos and CDs. I keep them because they are the tangible remains of what I now carry with me. But if I lost them in a fire or if and when they eventually do deteriorate, I know I still have them safely stored on digital media forever.

The only thing that kind of worries me a little is this. What happens if, sometime in the future, we forget how to decode digital images or sound files? I know it’s unlikely, but in the event of a global catastrophe that ends modern civilization as we know it, any old photos and movie film will still be viewable. But if no one is around who knows how to decode strings of binary digits, all our CDs and computer files will be worthless gibberish when our last batteries run down.

But it’s a chance worth taking. Despite the lack of tangibility and the off-chance that humans in the future will forget our digital coding algorithms, to preserve your fondest memories for posterity, you should go ahead and digitize them.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Hail to the Beauty Queen?

Over the last eight years, and especially the last four, comedians around the country have been blessed with joke manna from heaven because of the presence of our blundering and absurdly clueless president. George W. Bush has spewed forth a treasure trove of priceless verbal gaffs that show not only his incredible lack of command of the English language, but just how out of touch he really is with reality.

So, although it will be a blissful day for the country at large when, next January 20, he is finally replaced in office by the next president, it could be a downer for the comedians and late-night talk show hosts who won’t have Pres. Bush to kick around anymore.

But wait. There might be another Bushite waiting in the wings. If, heaven forbid, McCain wins his bid for the presidency, Sarah Palin will be right there with him. She will undoubtedly supply the comedy industry with the fodder it needs to carry on the Bush legacy as the hapless man in the White House, except that she would only be the vice-president. Well, that didn’t stop the jokesters from having a field day when Dan Quayle was in office.

And who knows, with an aging John McCain as president, it might be only a matter of time before the beauty queen from Alaska gets to sit behind the big desk.

But beyond giving a shot in the arm to comedy, there is not one single other reason to vote for the McCain-Palin ticket next month. If you care more about the economy than late night laughs, if you believe universal health care is of greater national interest than jokes about our leaders, or if you care more about getting us out of the dreaded war in Iraq than giving David Letterman and Jay Leno a bottomless barrel of Palin jokes, then I suggest voting for the Obama-Biden ticket instead.

On the other hand, if your biggest quest in life is to be entertained and if you really want to spend your late nights rolling on the floor in laughter at what a goofball politician had to say, then you might want to consider putting Palin in as VP.

Here is a preview of some coming attractions if she actually makes it to Washington:

“They are also building schools for the Afghan children so that there is hope and opportunity in our neighboring country of Afghanistan.” Did they move Afghanistan to Canada?

Or how about this one? When she was asked how McCain has pushed for more regulations during his terms as senator, Palin replied, “I'll try to find you some and I'll bring them to you.”

When she was mayor, she said, “I'm the mayor, I can do whatever I want until the courts tell me I can't.”

And, of course, Palin harkens back to the Jimmy Carter years with her relentless pronunciation of “nucular” instead of nuclear. At least Carter realized his lack of verbal expertise and eventually corrected himself.

Of course, if she does become vice-president, she’ll have to figure out what to do with her time, at least according to her own understanding of the position. “As for that VP talk all the time, I'll tell you, I still can't answer that question until somebody answers for me, What is it exactly that the VP does every day?” she said in an interview.

Even if John McCain were a 45-year-old body builder I would have trouble putting him in office knowing that someone like Palin is next in line for the most important leadership role in the world. But McCain is an elderly man with a history of cancer. Do we really want to risk that he’ll survive for four years?

I cringe at the thought of hearing Hail to the Chief played for Palin, knowing it really should be retitled, Hail to the Queen; beauty queen that is. But at least she would be the first beauty queen in history to actually be in a position of bringing on world peace. Too bad the mix of her religious fundamentalism and a high political position would be more likely to bring on Armageddon. I’m sure that would please her just as much, seeing as how her church prays for the end of the world on a regular basis.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Whatever Your Beliefs, You are Dead Wrong

People who have read my columns and blog entries through the years, or maybe who have just read my archives recently, know that I talk a lot about religion. But if you read some of my earlier posts and compare them with my most recent ones you will think that I vacillate on the subject of religion a bit.

Most of my columns have questioned religion, and more specifically, they have questioned certain belief systems within religion. When religion conflicts with science, for example, I always come out on the side of truth, that is to say, science.

I have often, in the past, called myself a Christian. That’s because in the past, I was one. But looking back, even in the days when I attended church service on a regular basis, I was always lukewarm with regards to my religion.

My beliefs over the years have evolved. Although I’ve always accepted the proofs and evidence of science, I didn’t really question that God existed or that Jesus was a real person who died on the cross for our sins. I didn’t even question that he was resurrected.

Later, I began to question much of what the bible has to say, and not just the Book of Genesis. As my beliefs have evolved, I have come to realize what I should have realized way back in college, that all religion is not only nonsense, it is the most dangerous concept that humankind has ever invented.

I feel embarrassed by the fact that it has taken me 55 years of living to discover what seems so obvious I should have been able to figure it out as a teenager. And that simply proves one of the points I now try to make, that religion is so ingrained in society, so ubiquitous, so pervasive, and so utterly woven into the fabric of modern life, that we don’t even notice how stupid it really is until we unravel it.

People who know that they know annoy me, because I know that they don’t know. How do I know? Because nobody can know. Even those who claim to know will admit that the reason they know is because of faith. You cannot know something by faith; you can only believe it. And as everyone will surely admit, believing is not always the same as knowing.

But here is what I do know: The one thing that all people of faith have in common is that they are all dead wrong. I can make that statement with complete and utter surety. How? Because it is logical.

Take, for example, the number of different religions in the world. There are dozens, and that’s just the main ones. Now take any one of the mainstream religions, like Christianity. It is broken down into myriad different denominations and sects. There are Protestants, Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox followers. Within the Protestant wing, there are Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, and so on. And within most of those denominations, like the Baptists, there are sects, such as the Southern Baptists, Separate Baptists, Independent Baptists, and who knows how many others. And within each of those sects there are individuals who don’t necessarily go along with every single point of every sermon their preachers preach.

So if you amplify the major religions into their many sects and finally down to the individual, there may be millions of different religious beliefs. Still, for the sake of making my point, let’s assume that there is a god and that religion is the road to salvation. Which one? They all pretty much believe that theirs is the road to take. But there are far more possible alternatives to a reality that includes God than there are beliefs about God, even with millions of beliefs. There are, in fact, an infinite number of different possible realities that include God.

One possibility is that God wants us all to be baptized by immersion. Another possibility is that sprinkling will do. A third possibility is that no baptism is just fine. There is a possible reality in which God answers prayers and yet another one in which he doesn’t involve himself with us at all.

So when someone confronts me with the notion that my disbelief might be wrong and that if it is, I will suffer eternal consequences, I tell them that there is no default consequence to being wrong. Because nobody knows which one of the infinite God-centric universes is real.

There are those who say the bible gives us all the answers we need. But again, which bible? There’s a perception that there is only one bible, but in reality there isn’t even that. There are the Protestant bibles such as the King James Version, the New King James Version, the New International Version and so on. There is the Catholic bible. There is the Koran. There is the Torah.

Then there is the possibility that the real universe has no god at all. And if that is the case, it doesn’t matter what one believes, because belief will make no difference to a soul that doesn’t exist.

So getting back to my original point, I don’t know the answer to the god question, but I’m 100 percent certain that nobody of faith knows the answer either. So whatever they believe is wrong. The only real difference is that those who believe as I do, are willing to admit we don’t know. Those who have faith in a religion are not.

So I choose no religion, and the reason is clear. Religion has done nothing but harm society. Yes, some churches help the downtrodden and feed the poor. Some churches have outreach programs that help their communities. Some send money to disaster relief efforts. But all those things can be accomplished without religion. We can have non-sectarian missions to do every one of those things.

Some say religion gives them personal comfort, and that’s fine. But people can achieve personal comfort and deep satisfaction through meditation or by other means that don’t involve invoking the supernatural.

God might very well exist. I don’t have enough knowledge to say conclusively that he doesn’t. But nobody else in the world possesses so much more knowledge than I that they can say conclusively that he does, which means those who say God exists or that their religion is the only one that will get you to heaven are resting their case on faith alone. And we all should know that believing something doesn’t make it so. Neither does wishing for it.

What I can say for sure is that religion has been and will continue to be detrimental to society. It has caused more wars than any other single entity. It has held back the progress of science for centuries and is still doing so today. It has resulted in the deaths of babies by parents who refused to seek medical care because of their beliefs. It has resulted in children in school choosing to ignore the teachings of science. It has resulted in a society that is repressive to women, homosexuals, and even heterosexuals who choose to have sex before they are married. Religion is both repressive and oppressive in almost all of its forms and iterations.

A belief in the tenets of any religion means checking your logical mind at the gate. It means giving in to superstition instead of taking charge of one’s own life and mind. It means ignoring one’s common sense in favor of pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking.

The bottom line is this. If there is a god, nobody knows what he wants of us, if anything; so why bother trying. If there isn’t a god, it doesn’t matter anyway. So regardless of the existence of God, religion doesn’t matter. And if it doesn’t matter, why participate in something that is so divisive, so silly, and so utterly dangerous to our species when we can live a better life, and one that is equally as moral, by jettisoning the baggage of religion once and for all.

It is past time that we, as modern human beings with great minds, finally slough off the dead weight of religion that has been dragging us down for eons and start to take charge of our lives and our own species. If we don’t we may not have a species left to protect much longer. Religion will have killed us all. And God may not be there to save us. And if he is, why would he want to. We did it to ourselves.

It's the Return of My Favorite Season: Fall

I think most people have their favorite seasons, at least those who live in parts of the country that actually have seasons. Summer is probably the favorite of most because of its many weather-related advantages: no coats, no wind chill, and no snow. Plus there are summer vacations, swimming, picnics, baseball, and boating.

Students and teachers enjoy the summer because they don’t have to go to school. It is generally a time of greater relaxation and fun in the sun.

I like summer, too. But it’s not my favorite season. Until fairly recently, it was my least favorite season. That’s because I deplore the extreme heat and humidity that often accompany the dog days of summer.

My favorite season is the one we just entered, autumn. I also once enjoyed wintertime, but not so much anymore. Winter, once my second favorite season behind fall, is now my least favorite. As I’ve grown older I’ve begun to realize that I can’t stand being cold anymore. I never did actually enjoy being cold, but I could live with it. I liked the snow. And I liked the coziness of winter. But I got over it.

Autumn is a season that most people either love or hate. Those who hate it often relate it to death or dying as the leaves wilt and fall from the trees and the grass turns brown. It’s a sign that winter, most people’s least favorite season, is just around the corner. So fall becomes a harbinger of the cold, dreary days ahead.

For me, though, I find autumn delightful. It is full of vibrant colors. It has one of my childhood’s favorite holidays, Halloween. It’s a time when the hot, humid days of summer are finally behind us and the cool, crisp, clear autumn air fills our days. It is harvest season, a time when we drink apple cider and have pumpkin pie.

Thanksgiving is also an autumn holiday. It’s a time of family gatherings and that warm, homey feeling one gets when surrounded by kith and kin.

It reminds me of trips to Brown County when I was a child, with the gorgeous display of nature’s colors against a backdrop of towering hills and deep river valleys. Autumn picnics are the best. You get to take in the beauty of nature while not being bothered by the steamy heat that characterized the summer just past.

Autumn is also a time for seasonal decorations. It starts with the pumpkins, gourds, and jack-o-lanterns of October. Then you move on to the cornucopias and cardboard cutouts of turkeys and pilgrims for November. Most of the Christmas season is still officially in the fall, too.

But then, following the holidays of autumn and early winter come the bleak, cold days of mid-winter. It is then when I start looking forward to spring. Spring was never my favorite season, mainly because it marked the end of my once-beloved wintertime, but also because of the violent weather.

But after many years of realizing that I really didn’t like winter all that much, and that violent weather is always spotty and not often as bad as predicted, I started rethinking my dislike of springtime.

At any rate, it’s fall now. We are near the beginning of my favorite three months of the year, October, November, and December. So, even though my freedom of summer is over, as a schoolteacher, I plan to enjoy the brisk autumn air and take in the scenery as I prepare for that first seasonal tradition of handing out sugary treats to young strangers who come knocking on my door.

Have a cup of hot cider and enjoy the season.